Book Review: Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism

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Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment. By Eric W. Gritsch. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. Paper. 158 pages.

Eric Gritsch, veteran church historian and Luther scholar, is a vivid and articulate author. That attribute is abundantly present in his most recent book, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment where he describes his undertaking: “The topic ‘Luther and the Jews’ is like a sea crowded with many vessels of various shapes and sizes, ranging from small boats to ocean liners—with an occasional warship! Some are steered well, others sail without reliable navigation, indeed, at times colliding with each other, and a few land on deserted islands sometimes damaged by warlike critique. Studies of the after-effects of Luther’s anti-Semitism disclose a great variety. In the  late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some studies become entangled with ideology, especially during the reign of German National Socialism (‘Nazism’). They then perish like the Titanic, after boasting to be part of a ‘final solution’” (128). Gritsch launches his  own considerable craft into these choppy seas in an effort to both understand and critique Luther. Along the way, Gritsch reveals his own theological presuppositions which form a hermeneutic for appropriating Luther’s theology in the twenty-first century.

Drawing on the work of the contemporary New Testament exegete Leander Keck, Gritsch maintains that Paul opposes any mission to the Jews (11, fn 38), arguing that Jews without faith in Christ share with Christians the same divine promise of salvation. Romans 9–11 is understood as making reference to a single, divine covenant that unites Jews and Christians as coheirs of an eschatological mystery. Any hint of “supersessionism” is dismissed. Here, Gritsch believes, Luther got it wrong: “He could have followed Paul’s advice to live with the divine ‘mystery’ regarding the relationship between Jews and Christians. But Luther did not. Instead, he offered his concluding argument for this divine verdict in 1538 when he heard about Jewsish attempts to infiltrate Christian communities, indeed to proselytize” (71).  In short, Gritsch sees Luther making a theological move that contradicts his earlier assertions in The Bondage of the Will, for example, not to seek after knowledge of hidden God: “[A]fter fifteen hundred years of Christian anti-Semitism, Luther felt obligated to conclude that the existing hatred of the Jews revealed the hatred of God. This conclusion is a violation of his own rule, so vehemently established and enforced against Erasmus in 1525, that to speculate about the hidden God ‘is no business of ours.’ To do so is against Luther’s better judgment (77). Thus the subtitle of the book and Gritsch’s thesis. For Gritsch it is not so much a matter of the early Luther (see “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” 1523) devoted to the pastoral evangelization of the Jews in contrast to the old Luther who was given to hateful polemics (see his writings from 1538 onward, especially “On the Jews and Their Lies” 1543) as it is a tragic failure of Luther to consistently apply his own theological method that distinguishes between God revealed and God hidden. It is from this perspective that Gritsch assesses other interpretations of Luther’s attitude toward the Jews, most especially the work of Walther Bienert (1909–1994) and Heiko Oberman (1930–2001).

Gritsch sees Luther’s “anti-Semitism” as a complexity shaped by historical and theological factors. In appealing to Luther’s distinction between God hidden and God revealed, Gritsch seems not only to underestimate but finally reject Luther’s confession of solus Christus as he sees Luther’s christological reading of the Old Testament as untenable. For Gritsch, it would appear, the only proper posture of Christians toward Jews is one of dialogue that excludes missionary witness.

A helpful feature of the book is the overview and summary of the reception of Luther’s writings on the Jews in the later sixteenth century and beyond.

John T. Pless

Fort Wayne, Indiana